Life Alive has been serving vegetarian food and juices in colorful, chill settings around Greater Boston for the last 18 years. The latest addition to the growing local chain opened in Harvard Square on March 1, 2022, converting the old Pizzeria Uno space at 22 JFK Street in Cambridge into an unrecognizably cheerful spot offering Life Alive’s usual menu — with a side of yoga and meditation. Yes, Uno’s basement bar has been replaced by yoga studios, showers, gemstone-themed bathrooms, and cozy seating where one can relax over a Buddha bowl and a smoothie packed with blue-green algae and chia.
This is the first of two planned collaborations between Life Alive and another local company, Down Under School of Yoga, with another slated to open in May in Boston’s South End. Officially dubbed Life Alive and Down Under School of Yoga Wellness Collaborative, these dual locations are a way to bring together Life Alive’s fully vegetarian and mostly vegan dishes (the menu is characterized as “plant-forward” with a few dishes with cheese, milk, or bee pollen) and Down Under’s yoga and meditation under one roof.
The pairing is a long time coming for the two companies, which both began in 2004, when Life Alive debuted in Lowell and Down Under consisted of three friends teaching together in a Newton Highlands parish hall, as Down Under director and principal Justine Wiltshire Cohen tells it. In 2010, those friends were taking a weekly yoga class with Patricia Walden, a well-known teacher in the Iyengar Yoga community, in Cambridge’s Central Square, right next to the second location of Life Alive, which had opened that year. They’d head to the restaurant after class; “Life Alive was sort of synonymous with yogi food,” says Cohen. Over kale bowls and smoothies, the friends discussed turning Down Under into a “real yoga school,” says Cohen. That year, they moved Down Under into a custom-built studio in Newtonville, adding a Brookline location in 2013 and another in Cambridge’s Porter Square in 2017.
As Down Under grew and added programming in Ayurveda, the traditional medicine system from India that dates back over 3,000 years, the school started to “get into the terrain of talking to people about how to nourish their bodies,” says Cohen. “We were like, ‘should we start a cafe?’ and Life Alive was like, ‘should we go into yoga?’ How about we both do what we do really well and come together to create this urban oasis?”
Life Alive CEO Bryan Timko and Cohen are quick to point out that their collaborative locations are not partial versions of the two businesses squeezed together. “I actually think something else is being created,” says Cohen. “It’s almost all of us in our fuller expressions. I think we’re going to a new frontier in terms of vibrancy of our nourishment and programming.”
Separately, both businesses have been going through something of a rebirth. Life Alive’s new era began in 2015, when Panera founder and former CEO Ron Shaich bought the restaurant group from Life Alive founder Heidi Feinstein with an eye toward expansion. New Life Alive locations opened near Boston University and in Boston’s Back Bay in 2018 and 2019 respectively, boasting a big redesign that honors Life Alive’s sort of hippie roots with a bold hodgepodge of colors and patterns but gives a more cohesive look to all the new locations.
Down Under, meanwhile, hit a rough patch last year, when over two dozen of its former teachers and managers publicly criticized the company’s restrictive non-compete and non-disparagement clauses in its employment contract. Cohen publicly apologized and made changes to the contract. It wasn’t enough for everyone, though, as over a dozen former teachers and managers described to The Boston Globe what they saw as a toxic workplace, noting that Cohen, in particular, had a management style “antithetical to the compassionate philosophy she espouses.” Around three dozen current staffers reportedly disputed the claims in a letter to the Globe defending Cohen and Down Under.
Cohen tells Eater that since then, Down Under “took its former employees’ feedback to heart, did away with its non-compete, and created a teacher leadership council, inviting its faculty to write their own contract.” She thinks, too, that Down Under is the only independent yoga school “treating its teachers as employees with access to healthcare, sick days, parental leave, retirement, seasonal meetings, a Leadership Council, and the commitment to retain all 80 teachers and 15 managers during the two-year pandemic.”
Now, the companies are looking toward a brighter future together, building locations where customers can take care of themselves in a variety of ways. For those who thrive in the world of “wellness,” that may mean a full immersion in yoga classes, meditation, social justice workshops, and a vegetarian meal plan. For others with a more casual relationship to yoga, that may mean dropping in for a hot yoga class one morning a week and grabbing a juice on the way out. Either way, the Life Alive and Down Under School of Yoga Wellness Collaborative is poised to become a little bit of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Harvard Square and, later this year, the South End.
The Harvard Square location is currently open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with online ordering available; view the Down Under schedule here.